Nutrition can often feel overwhelming – so many rules, restrictions, and guidelines to abide by.
What’s worse, it seems like everyone has their own, superior way of doing things. Everything seems complicated and contradicting.
But it doesn’t have to be. This guide is here to help clarify the most important aspects of eating for muscle growth – no fluff, marketing, or myths.
Here are the three pillars of nutrition for muscle growth.
Pillar 1: Quantity and Composition
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Eat big, get big.”
While I don’t particularly like it, it holds some truth. Even if you cover all of the remaining criteria but don’t take quantity into account, you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot. You’ll either consume too much food and gain a lot of fat, or too little, and not gain any muscle.
Calories provide the body with the energy it needs to build muscle and perform its many processes. To build muscle mass optimally, we need to create a small caloric surplus.
Meaning, if your body needs, say, 3000 calories per day to sustain itself and maintain its current weight, eating 3200-3300 per day would be an excellent example of a caloric surplus to build muscle while minimizing fat gains.
There are many useful calculators out there that will help you find your specific calorie needs, and all it would take then is to add a small 100-300 calorie surplus.
Aside from calories, protein is the next critical component of muscle growth. The macronutrient provides the body with the building blocks (amino acids) it needs to build and repair muscle tissues, as well as perform many of its bodily processes. Each gram of protein has four calories.
Research and anecdotal evidence suggest that 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is plenty. If you weigh 180 pounds, it comes out to 144 to 180 grams of protein per day.
Though fats don’t directly contribute to muscle growth, they are essential for our health and are involved in hormonal synthesis, cell creation, energy levels, organ protection (cushioning) and the absorption of some vitamins. Each gram of fats has nine calories.
The general recommendation for fat intake is 0.3 to 0.6 grams per pound of bodyweight or at least 15% of your total calorie intake.
Carbs are the primary source of energy for the body. When consumed, carbs are broken down to glucose, which is then used as fuel for the brain, and in the creation of muscle and liver glycogen. Each gram of carbohydrates has four calories.
Carbs also interact with several hormones (mainly insulin) and help with anabolic signaling.
As far as intake goes, leave the remaining calories for carbs. So long as you cover your protein and fat needs, you can fill the remaining up with carbs.
Dietary fiber is vital for gut health, satiety, regular bowel movements, stable blood sugar levels, and much more.
Most guidelines state that we should consume around 10 grams of fiber for every thousand calories. So, if you’re eating 3000 calories a day, it comes out to about 30 grams of fiber from mixed sources – veggies, fruits, grains, seeds, legumes, etc.
Pillar 2: Food Choices and Hydration
If you’ve spent much time looking up fitness information, you’ve likely come across the term flexible dieting. In short, the idea behind the method is that there are no good or bad foods, but rather more and less beneficial ones.
With this way of eating, the goal is to get 80 to 90 percent of your calories from whole, nutritious foods (meat, fish, dairy, fruits, veggies, eggs, rice, grains, legumes, etc.) and leave 10 to 20 percent for your favorite treats – ice cream, sweets, savory snacks, etc.
This will ensure adequate intake of each macronutrient, as well as plenty of fiber, and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Plus, you still have some flexibility to enjoy your guilty pleasures without worrying about your progress in the gym.
Next up, hydration. Not only is water essential for good health, energy, and cognition, but it has also been shown to aid in muscle growth and recovery. Plus, hydration plays a vital role in athletic performance, which means that it impacts the quality of your workouts.
As far as intake goes, general guidelines suggest 2-2.5 liters of water for women, and 3-3.5 liters for men, per day.
Pillar 3: Nutrient Timing
Nutrient timing is often touted as something essential, but that’s not the case. The fact is, so long as you make good food choices and eat enough calories, proteins, fats, and carbs to meet your goals, the timing of it doesn’t matter nearly as much.
Make sure that your eating schedule is one which you can sustain for weeks, months, even years – whether that means two, three, four, five, or even six meals per day.
With that said, you should pay attention to your pre and post-training meals somewhat. It’s crucial to provide your body with some fuel a few hours before training (a combination of protein and carbs) to ensure excellent workout performance and optimal recovery post-training.
It’s also a good idea to have a well-balanced post-workout meal within one to two hours after training to avoid any potential muscle loss, and also to kickstart recovery and glycogen replenishment.